by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 05, 2020
Kingdom Death is a game where you can be playing spectacularly, and then roll a 1 on a random table and lose your star survivor. Frustrating, certainly, it’s happened to me! But, it can also be memorable and fun. I remember with much amusement Evan losing our best survivor to a bad roll on the Dark Dentist settlement event during our first campaign. Coming at the game with the mindset of an RPG player I find the randomness of the game’s story events enjoyable. When it works well, it brings the setting to life. But, if you are coming at this game with the perspective of a more serious board game player, these events are likely going to frustrate or feel half-baked.
A lot of the meta-game in Kingdom Death seems tied to mitigating and minimizing how the randomness of the game might effect you. The more you play your meta-knowledge about the game increases. You know what weapons to bring on a particular hunt that will work well against a particular monster. You know which survivors you’ll need to bring because they might be effective against some nemesis you’re facing. People learn what settlement events exist and groom survivors to handle them or take the fall as need be. You know what story events are coming up and what you might need to prepare to avoid dire results. Kingdom Death becomes a game of minimizing risk divorced from any ‘story’ that might be emerging through play.
In the past I’d have argued approaching the game with this mindset feels like it’s missing the point. The random death and destruction all feeds into the aesthetics of the game. The game is bleak. Your characters all end up maimed or dead. There is a steady level of attrition and death the game wants you to experience: and it is trying very hard to make sure you experience it!
The thing is, Kingdom Death is really hard. There is a real tension between the RPG side of the game and the tactical board game side. To really succeed in the game you do need to meta-game. You fight each monsters several times, and while the fights will generally be quiet different, you will always learn something useful to help you next time you face them. Beyond that, you need to be so careful with how you spend your resources as you only have so many Lantern Years to build up your settlement and survivors before tougher Nemesis monsters show up to try and take you down a peg. There is no winning this game without a lot of really serious strategizing. You certainly won’t make it far if you aren’t trying to make the optimal choice each step of the way. The game design feels like it encourages this behaviour. Some of the final fights are so tough if you haven’t been on the ball the entire time you’ll likely lose.
I have been playing my recent solo campaigns with a real eye to win. But I will still lose a survivor on the hunt and shake my fists and message my friends to lament their death. It’s still fun! It all shapes the story of my settlement. But, I know not everyone agrees here. When people criticize this game from a game design and mechanics perspective, this feels like the area they hone in on: “The hunt table is too random and stupid.”
But if you don’t mind being eaten by a giant worm once in a while, I think this game is pretty great.